History of the Anti-Vax Movement

History of the Anti-Vax Movement


The anti-vax movement has existed for as long as vaccines have. Vaccine sceptics exist across the globe; critiquing vaccine science and promoting not using them. It should be noted the group doesn’t include people who are exempt from vaccines for medical reasons. Vaccines trace their origins back to ancient China where the scabs from smallpox victims would be ground up and blown up the noses of children. Similar practices spread across the world but vaccines weren’t formalised until Edward Jenner took the known theory of the time that having a disease made one more immune. Taking the theory to logical extent and as such he took the vesicles from a milkmaid and infected a young boy. The smallpox did not develop but he still gained a level of immunity. He faced much opposition and was even ostracised from his community many people believed early vaccination doctors were infecting people with diseases. The anti-vax movement is about more than misinformation, its rooted in our very history and psychology.

The pseudo science is undeniably linked to the rise of the anti-vax movement. Highly criticised papers such as those by Andrew Wakefield which stated vaccines cause autism are endemic in the anti-vax movement and the echo chambers of the internet only highlights this. Online information can be presented with no counter, with much of it looking to those without a medical education as very scientific whilst actually containing many logical flaws. However, misinformation on its own does nothing, people need a reason to listen to it.

It was reported by the royal society for public health that 76% of people would take the COVID vaccine if advised to do so. 79% of white respondents said that they would take it while only 57% of of respondents from ethnic backgrounds would accept the vaccine. Distrust of the government and the health profession (including pharmaceutical companies) has been a leading cause for many anti-vaxers. Historical racism from doctors and government has left many of those from ethnic communities distrusting of both. Pharmaceutical companies have long histories, with many known to sold unsafe drugs hiding side-effects in the small print and deliberately communicating risk poorly, often misleading doctors as much as they do patients. Distrust of doctors was also seen heavily in the feminist movement of previous decades. Many doctors would dismiss women’s health concerns with certain treatments and symptoms as ‘hysteria’. Even when the doctors where correct to continue with the current treatment, as they often dismissed concerns this led to a distrust of doctors. This distrust from both women’s and ethnic communities often meant that they sought to recenter the medical expertise to the home, phrases such as ‘mother knows best’ gained traction in this context. Many mothers who saw their healthy babies become autistic children were easily sold on the pseudo science that it was in fact the vaccines that caused their child to be autistic, as much of the early development for autistic and non-autistic children is same, such as walking: many mothers only find out about their children’s autism after they have had their first vaccines, leading to an association.

Vaccine support was at its zenith post World War Two as many people saw the benefits of vaccinations. Many deadly diseases no longer exist because of the prevalence of vaccines, but there were also other situational causes such as maintaining a war ready population, something that vaccines are incredibly important for. As these diseases died out and people stopped being old enough to remember them coupled with ending of the Cold War, the previous reasons for supporting vaccines started to die away. This, combined with a new wave of interest in alternative medicine, often coming about because of how it looks far more safe. Asking parents to vaccinate their otherwise healthy children with a series of foreign substances for disease they have never seen with sharp needles goes counter to many parental instincts. Alternative medicine is easy to sell to new parents because of this. Much of alternative medicine opposes vaccines and is linked to much of the pseudo science around vaccines.

There are many reasons for distrusting vaccines, but its linked far more to psychology and history than simple misinformation, and tackling those causes will be a far more effective way of increasing the number of people who want to get vaccinated than simply removing the pseudo science or telling them that are stupid or mislead.

Image copyright: Marco Verch

About author

Aaron Petty

Australian born Economics and Politics student at the University of Reading. Passionate about a wide variety of topics, from politics to music and gaming.